The mature man is the one who not only honors vows and oaths, but who, when he breaks them, confesses his crime, feels shame for his failure, and seeks to make right what he has violated. Shrugging off one’s moral failings, acting as if they don’t matter, is not a sign of maturity but an abdication of it.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Sir Gawain: On Maturity

We all mature in different ways and at different rates. Some reach maturity by the age of twenty; some never reach it all. Part of the reason for this is that people rarely mature, rarely come of age, until they have undergone a rite of passage, an ordeal that tests their courage, their endurance, and their faith.

Alas, there are many who fail the test when it comes, who choose to meet it with pride or envy, bitterness or skepticism. Such are those who think they have matured, but who have not. For maturity and cynicism are not synonyms but opposing states of mind. There is a difference between seeing one’s flaws and feeling sorry for oneself, between choosing to sacrifice yourself for others and developing a martyr’s complex, between doubting yourself and doubting goodness and truth.

Consider my Sir Gawain, noble knight of the Round Table and nephew to King Arthur. The trial he underwent tested every ounce of his physical courage and moral fiber. Yet he survived it and returned to Camelot a sadder but wiser man.

We are all friends here; let me tell you the tale.

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The tale begins on Christmas Eve during the innocent days of Arthur’s court, before Guinevere broke her troth or Mordred schemed the downfall of Camelot and the Table. Oh, those were golden days of untroubled chivalry. It seemed that neither cowardice nor malice nor treachery could spoil the joy of Arthur and his knights.

Optimism was high and virtue abounded, but few, if any, of the knights had yet been tested. Even Arthur himself was a trifle naïve, thinking the good days would last forever and that no ill thing could befall his majestic court.

And then he came, a pebble to trouble the still stream, a stone to shatter the stable roof, a boulder to start an avalanche on a peaceful mountain. He was a man, but a man as tall as a giant. And his hair and his skin and his raiment so glistened and shone with a brilliant shade of green that those who dared to gaze upon him thought that a mighty tree had strode into the hall.

At once, the Green Knight challenged Arthur and his men to a duel, an exchange of blows to the neck. He did not share their sunny, complacent faith in their own courage and invincibility and told them so in cutting words and menacing gestures.

The silence of the knights in response to his haughty and condescending call to single combat was deafening. Ashamed that no one would take up the Green Knight’s challenge, Arthur himself made bold to accept it. But he was stopped by Sir Gawain, who begged that he, young though he was, be allowed to grapple with this giant upstart who dared to taunt the flower of chivalry.

The Green Knight agreed and laid down his neck to receive a blow from Sir Gawain’s sword. With all his strength, the young knight brought down his weapon, severing the green head from its massive body. But Sir Gawain’s victory was to be short lived. For the headless body of the Green Knight, though blood streamed from its naked neck, rose from the floor, took its head in its hand, and held it up to speak:

“This time next year, you must meet me at my Green Chapel and offer your neck to receive a blow from my own sword.” And then the Green Knight was gone.

The festivities continued, with Arthur laughing aloud at the spectacle. But the heart of Gawain was troubled, knowing what awaited him in the following year.

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Had my Gawain received his blow on that self-same night, his initiation into the world of maturity would have been far less severe and lasting. As it turned out, that year of waiting and dread and searching aged him by ten, forcing him to face his own capacity for despair and building up within him the gifts of patient endurance, fearless honesty, and resolute chastity. In a word, delayed gratification.

For his was to be a slow and grueling education. In addition to facing dangers along the road, Gawain, in his search for the Green Chapel, came upon a castle where the true quality of his Christian chivalry was tested to the breaking point.

No sooner was Gawain ushered into the castle than he was treated by all as a celebrity, a knight from Camelot well-schooled in the dual arts of war and love. The lady of the manor quickly took a fancy to the handsome Gawain while the lord proposed a game. He would leave Gawain behind in the castle while he went hunting for three consecutive days; in the evening, they would exchange whatever prizes they had won.

How could the innocent Gawain know that on each of those days the lord’s wife would steal into his bedroom and attempt to seduce him? Nevertheless, the knight stayed true, only allowing himself to indulge in a number of courtly kisses—all of which he passed on to the lord in the evening.

Alas, his courage proved less true. When the lady gave him a green girdle that she swore would protect him from harm, he chose to conceal it from the lord and bring it with him to the Green Chapel.

In the end, the Green Knight did not kill Gawain; instead, he cut a gash in the side of his neck as a reminder of the cowardice and coveting he showed in keeping the girdle. For you see, the Green Knight and the lord of the manor were one and the same. Though he scolded Gawain for loving his life too much, he praised him for staying true in the test of chastity and sent him back home with the scar and the girdle as tokens of his journey.

Chastened, Gawain returned to Camelot and confessed to all his deeds. But Arthur and his knights, preferring to remain in their state of innocence, made merry of Gawain’s ordeal and adopted the girdle as the symbol of their order. Amidst the courtly laughter, however, Gawain took to heart his hard-won maturity and hid his tears from the rest.

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What then has my tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to say to those of you who live in an age where chivalry is but a distant memory and chastity has lost its central importance? A great deal, I believe.

The mature man is the one who not only honors vows and oaths, but who, when he breaks them, confesses his crime, feels shame for his failure, and seeks to make right what he has violated. Shrugging off one’s moral failings, acting as if they don’t matter, is not a sign of maturity but an abdication of it.

Taking responsibility for one’s actions, staying true to one’s word, and denying one’s lusts: in my age, in yours, or in Arthur’s, these are the perennial signs of maturity.

—A humble poet

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The featured image is “The Vigil” by John Pettie, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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